The sweet aroma of cigar smoke swirled around the large outdoor terrace of the Pueblo Viejo hotel. The bartenders poured from apparently bottomless bottles of Flor de Caña seven-year-old rum. The crowd moved comfortably in the tropical night air under a full moon. It was the kickoff party for the third Nicaragua Tobacco Festival in the country’s capital of Managua.
More than 250 people attended the opening night, which included the cocktail reception and a buffet with a Caribbean-theme dinner. The guests included Francisco Valenzuela, the mayor of Estelí, which is the main cigar manufacturing center in Nicaragua, as well as representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Managua. The other guests were cigar enthusiasts and members of the cigar industry from around the world.
The president of the Nicaraguan Tobacco Association, Nestor Andrés Plasencia, greeted the crowd, telling them the festival was a chance “to show the people of the world the success of the Nicaraguan cigar industry…and give everyone a chance to enjoy the best cigars in the world.”
He said that the most recent statistics from 2012 show that Nicaragua now accounts for more than a third of the premium cigars sold in the United States. “And, this is just the beginning,” Plasencia said. “We are still learning about the land and the climate.”
The Nicaraguan Tobacco Association includes a number of cigar producers and leaf growers, many of which produce brands that are popular in the United States: Drew Estate, Joya de Nicaragua, Oliva, My Father Cigars, Padrón, Plasencia, A.J. Fernandez, Scandinavian Tobacco, NACSA, Tabacos de Nicaragua, PENSA, Tabacalera Tavicusa, Tabacalera San Rafael, Procenicsa and A.S.P. Nicaragua.
The Festival moved from Managua to Estelí for two days of factory tours and visits to tobacco fields in the area around the city. Each day, the small tour buses left the Festival’s hotel accommodations, including the brand new HEX hotel on the city’s main highway, to tour factories and fields from the Padrón factory to the expansive, relatively new facilities at My Father Cigars, Drew Estate and A.J. Fernandez.
Joya de Nicaragua took the opportunity of the festival to show off its newly renovated factory, which was the first one established in Estelí in 1968 by Simon Camacho and Juan Francisco Bermejo. Those men launched the Joya de Nicaragua brand, which ended up in the White House as its official cigar. The two men eventually sold the operation to Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza. The factory has been modernized, opening up its interior spaces and providing new temperature-controlled aging rooms. The original façade, which was scraped clean of decades of paint, shows the scars of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution when the factory was peppered with mortar fire, and even partially burned.
Drew Estate also inaugurated a new 61,000-square-foot warehouse right across the street from its massive factory, Drew Estate I. Drew Estate II, according to company cofounder Jonathan Drew, consolidated storage for tobacco that had been spread across the tobacco growing region, and now holds the company’s inventory, reportedly worth more than $20 million. The modern facility, with 31-foot-high ceilings, will also be used for tobacco sorting and fermentation.
On Friday afternoon, Jorge Padrón spoke to a seminar crowd about his company’s focus on quality, not necessary quantity, and about his ongoing commitment to Nicaraguan tobacco. Dr. Alejandro Martinez Cuenca, the owner of Joya de Nicaragua, outlined the importance of cigars to the Nicaraguan economy; it is the country’s ninth largest export in dollar terms, and is estimated to have produced nearly $180 million in export revenues in 2013.
The closing gala dinner was held at Estelí’s Club Campestre, and the grounds were decked out in white tents and a large stage. The Flor de Caña flowed freely once again, and the guests all reveled in a great three-day event.